Speculation and suspicion swirled throughout the immigrant rights community last week when Santa Ana resident Edgar Vargas was arrested by federal immigration agents on his way to a Superior Court hearing to face charges that he assaulted police officers, among other alleged crimes.

In late July, a YouTube video of Vargas being beaten by Santa Ana Police officers gained national attention and his public defender was planning to argue in court that Vargas was compliant with the officers and a victim of police brutality.

That Vargas, who had been deported twice before, was being picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on his way to the hearing led many to speculate that the police agencies had conspired to detain him before he could plead his case in court.

At the time, an ICE spokeswoman would not say whether the agency had made contact with local law enforcement before detaining Vargas. Meanwhile, spokespeople with the Santa Ana Police Department and Orange County District Attorney’s Office denied that their agencies had any contact with ICE about Vargas leading up to the arrest.

Now ICE is acknowledging that Vargas’ arrest was part of a tactic it is employing as a response to the newly-implemented Trust Act and court decisions that have made it more difficult for local police agencies to hold undocumented inmates on ICE’s behalf.

“Since the implementation of the Trust Act earlier this year, local law enforcement is choosing not to honor many of the detainers lodged by ICE, making it necessary for ICE officers to proactively seek out and detain the priority criminal aliens who are released back into the community,” ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said via email.

The new state law, which went into effect Jan. 1, prohibits local law enforcement agencies from detaining an individual who is otherwise eligible for release from custody on an immigration detainer, except in limited circumstances.

The act goes on to stipulate that the detainee’s criminal record must include certain specified convictions or charges, for example, a conviction for a serious or violent felony, or a serious or violent felony charge for which a judge has found probable cause; or must meet certain conditions, for example, if the individual is subject to an outstanding federal felony arrest warrant.

Vargas had prior convictions from 2010 and earlier for theft, second-degree burglary, and other felony counts, according to court records, and had been deported twice before, according to ICE.

But those crimes apparently did not meet the Trust Act’s threshold for local officials to hold undocumented inmates on ICE’s behalf. When Vargas was detained in county jail in April and June, Kice said, sheriff’s officials didn’t honor ICE requests to hold him.

Federal agents should not have arrested Vargas in the manner that they did, say immigrant rights advocates.

“We have received some reports of similar abuses in other parts of the state. This practice is cruel, costly and an affront to the basic principle of due process,” said Jon Rodney, spokesman for the California Immigrant Policy Center. “We urge the Obama administration to halt it – and to halt all deportation proceedings which have resulted from it – at once.”

ICE, meanwhile, emphasizes that they’re detaining undocumented immigrants who present serious threats to public safety.

ICE “will continue to work cooperatively with its law enforcement partners throughout Southern California as the agency seeks to enforce its priorities by identifying and removing convicted criminal aliens and other public safety threats,” Kice said in a statement.

Yet activists say ICE continues to target people who have only minor convictions on their record – life traffic violations – or have no criminal history at all.

As an example, they point to Santa Ana resident Samuel Sixtos-Campos, who was referred to ICE in violation of the Trust Act in April.

According to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Sixtos-Gomez’s criminal history shows traffic-related charges, which didn’t qualify him for longer detention under the Trust Act.

Sixtos-Campos is “not a public threat, he’s just a father,” said Alexis Nava Teodoro, deportation defense coordinator of RAIZ, noting that he has a young daughter.

Sixtos-Campos remains in detention awaiting possible deportation. On Monday, he began a hunger strike that entered its third day on Wednesday.

“He has immense support from [Congresswoman] Loretta Sanchez, [State Senator] Lou Correa, the California Legislative Caucus – immense Congressional support – but he’s still in the Adelanto detention center,” Teodoro said.

Activists also say federal agents have been detaining people who are low on ICE’s own priority list.

“I haven’t seen ICE or [the U.S. Department of Homeland Security] implement any sort of serious steps to control agents, even offices, that may be engaging in enforcement activities that go well beyond articulated priorities,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.

Kice said in an email late Wednesday afternoon she was unavailable for comment.

In a March 2011 letter, then-ICE Director John Morton said the top priority for ICE are “aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.”

That includes people involved in terrorism or spying, convicted of violent crimes, gang members older than 16, people who have outstanding warrants, or otherwise pose a risk to national security.

The prioritization is needed because ICE only has resources to deport less than 4 percent of the undocumented immigrants in America each year, Morton wrote.

“ICE must prioritize the use of its enforcement personnel, detention space, and removal resources to ensure that the removals the agency does conduct promote the agency’ s highest enforcement priorities, namely national security, public safety, and border security,” Morton wrote.

Saenz, the MALDEF president, said that by ICE’s own definition, the agency is arresting many people who are not a high priority. And, he said, the timing of Vargas’s arrest should spark concern.

“I think we all ought to be concerned if ICE is picking up people when they are attempting to go to court, where they have due process rights,” said Saenz. “The notion that we’re kicking someone out before they’re even been adjudicated is ludicrous.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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